Month: December 2011

The Politics of Astrology in Renaissance Hungary

One of the highlights of the Diet of Presburg in 1468 was a debate between two Polish astrologers, Martin Bylica and Jan Stercze. At issue was the proper interpretation of a geniture that Stercze had calculated in 1467 for János Rozgon, a Hungarian Count. Upon reviewing the geniture. Bylica declared that Stercze’s interpretation was founded on erroneous astrological principles. Stercze defended his interpretation in a series of letters to Rozgon, but the matter remained unresolved until the Diet of Presburg the following year. In front of the Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus and the rest of the Diet, Bylica and Stercze publicly debated the proper astrological techniques and the appropriate methods of interpretation. Corvinus judged the dispute and in the end declared Bylica the winner. Bylica was awarded 100 florins and, more importantly, became Corvinus’s principle astrologer and political advisor — a few years later, Bylica boasted that the king consulted with him on all important matters and rarely traveled without Bylica by his side. Stercze, by contrast, appears to have spent the remainder of his life in a small town in Transylvania.

This debate provides a glimpse of the social and politic context for Renaissance astrology. The dispute between Bylica and Stercze spilled out of the erudite circles of academically-trained astrologers and into the powerful world of royal politics. The fact that their contest was an important event at the diet in 1468 locates their astrology at the center of Corvinus’s politics. It also suggests that the practice of astrology included public performance. Unlike academic disputes, which were tightly circumscribed by rules, court disputes were governed by the intellectual and aesthetic interests of the prince. To succeed in the courtly arena required erudition and showmanship. Bylica had mastered both. It is no surprise that he was handsomely rewarded with Corvinus’s generous patronage for the remainder of his life.

A horoscope cast by Martin Bylica for Matthias Corvinus’s Coronation in 1464.

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Images of Byzantium: Nicephorus Gregoras’s “On the Construction and Origin of the Astrolabe”

In 1498 Giorgio Valla published a Latin excerpt from Nicephorus Gregoras’s treatise “On the Construction and Origin of the Astrolabe.” Despite appearing as the fifth tract in Valla’s compendium, which included other Byzantine and Greek authors, Gregoras’s text quickly became a standard authority amongst scholars in 16th-century Europe. Authors such as Johannes Schöner and Peter Apian regularly cited him at various places in their own manuals on constructing and using astrolabes but do not appear to have read Gregoras’s text. Indeed, their familiarity with the Byzantine scholar seems to have been mediated through Valla’s excerpt.

This project has two parts. First, I am working on a critical edition and translation of Gregoras’s text. This volume will include a scholarly introduction that locates Gregoras and his work within the Byzantine tradition. The second part of the project explores how and why Gregoras became an authority for 16th-century Latin authors. This promises to illuminate how Byzantium came to occupy a place of intellectual and cultural importance in the sixteenth century, particularly amongst German scholars and humanists.

In Praise of Ephemeral Astrological Literature

The Economist recently printed an interesting article comparing today’s social media and the Arab Spring to the success of the Lutheran Reformation (Note, there is an interesting symmetry in their article: social media seems to be one the winning side in both cases, or at least the laudable side. In both cases revolutionaries opposing repressive regimes exploit the power of social media. Did these social networks not function for Catholics? Could repressive regimes not also use social media?). That article prompted me to think about this analogy and how it might relate to the history of science. These are my initial thoughts, reposted from the PACHS blog:

Thony over at the The Renaissance Mathematicus beat me to the post in his recent “Reformation, revolutions and social media.” I had been thinking about The Economist’s article on “How Luther went viral.”

Thony rightly points out that The Economist article doesn’t offer anything terribly new, as his quotations from Eisenstein and Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin on the Reformation (surely taking his cue from The Economist article) demonstrate. He thinks the Reformation would have occurred anyway—I would add to his John Wycliffe example Jan Hus and the Bohemian reformers, reflecting my own central European interests. He also wonders aloud about how valid the parallels are between the advent of print and new media technologies today.

To be fair to The Economist, I think the article tries to see today’s social media as analogous not just to print but to the networks of circulation that spread Reformation and Counter-Reformation ideas:

Now the internet offers a new perspective on this long-running debate [the role of print in the Reformation], namely that the important factor was not the printing press itself (which had been around since the 1450s), but the wider system of media sharing along social networks—what is called “social media” today. Luther, like the Arab revolutionaries, grasped the dynamics of this new media environment very quickly, and saw how it could spread his message.

The underlying question seems, however, still to be: Is the internet analogous to print? …

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Nikephoros Gregoras and Byzantine Science

In March I am talking on the Byzantine polymath Nikephoros Gregoras and his efforts to establish his scientific authority. In “Empiricism, Prediction, and Instruments: The Creation of Expertise in 14th-Century Constantinople” I will examine the ways that Gregoras tried to distinguish his own expertise by grounding it in precise, empirical predictions and his command of technical knowledge.

This talk forms part of my larger project on Byzantine scientific knowledge. This larger project began from Gregoras’s text “On the Construction and Origin of the Astrolabe” (“Περὶ κατασκευαζῆς καὶ γενἐσεως ἀστρολάβου”).

A digram from Gregoras’s text on how to construct an astrolabe.

Some Final Thoughts on Maps

After thinking about and studying their maps for the entire semester, students produced some really interesting “Biography of a Map” projects. What started as a short assignment intended to introduce students to the advantages and limits of scientific claims, see “Biography of a Map—Further Experiments in Pedagogy,” quickly grew into a term-long research project. Their initial efforts show considerable promise while also highlighting some challenges. Students were able quickly to see maps as more than neutral reflections of the natural world, see Marketing a Colony—William Penn’s Maps of Pennsylvania. At the same time, students had to confront some unfamiliar challenges, see Mapping Our Way Forward—More Experiments in Pedagogy. Here I want to reflect on how I tried to help students identify, articulate, and confront those challenges. Along the way I will highlight some of their successes. I will also try to indicate where I could adjust the project to make it more successful.

Lines on topography maps were traced over to make a face (Source: Author’s photograph from display in Magill Library, Haverford College)

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